Recipe for the Perfect Final Fantasy Game
Has Final Fantasy lost its identity? It seems like the last good Final Fantasy game I played was Lost Odyssey -- and I’m aware it’s not part of the FF series. I enjoyed Final Fantasy XII and XIII. Both were gorgeous titles that introduced fresh concepts and innovations that took the series to places they’d never been. However, there were just as many elements that made the two the least Final Fantasy-like, and not necessarily in a good way. I don’t know how much of that has to do with the fact that Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the series (and most recently, Lost Odyssey), is no longer at the helm. Metal Gear still has Hideo Kojima, Dragon Quest has Yuji Horii, and Nintendo, of course, still has Miyamoto. I know key developers from the franchise were involved in the latest titles (Yoshinori Kitase and Tetsuya Nomura to name two), but it seems like a good time to examine what, for me, makes the perfect Final Fantasy.
This article follows our ‘recipe’ format to describe what I think that would be. I’ve limited the ingredients to former titles, because I don’t think they need to compete with Western games or even other RPGs. When I buy a Final Fantasy, I don’t expect Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or Fallout. I expect Final Fantasy. So what constitutes a great Final Fantasy? Here goes, with spoilers galore!
Story: Final Fantasy VI, VII
At heart, the most important part of a Final Fantasy game is a great story. Period. All the other stuff is extra, like adding toppings to a finely roasted turkey. That’s what saved the very first Final Fantasy from being "final", and that’s what made FF6 and 7 the classics they are now. What makes a "great" story? Basics include sympathetic characters, a world you really care about, an overwhelming instigator, and meaningful conflict, but it’s also about taking risks with the plot.
In FF7, from the moment players took control of Cloud, the ex-SOLDIER hired by Avalanche to help infiltrate Shinra, I wanted to know what would happen to him. Sakaguchi originally developed the game with the idea of making it a detective story. The mystery, in this case, became identity -- who was Cloud? When I found out that the cocky, bold protagonist actually failed to make SOLDIER and that a big part of who he’d become was defined by an overwhelming need to overcome his sense of weakness, it was a pivotal moment that tied me indefatigably to him.
Both FF7 and 6 shared the theme of nature vs. technology. For the creation of 7, Sakaguchi mentioned that he wanted to describe the essence of life, especially as he was grieving the passing of his mother. There was an atmosphere of melancholy throughout the entire game. Barrett, Tifa, and Midgar were so unique, yet their plights were grounded in tragedy. There were quirky moments in the game (Cloud pretending to be a female escort), and there were grand moments (Meteor about to obliterate the planet and Weapon attacking Junon). A scene I remember fondly was being in Cosmo Canyon with the group sitting around a fire. Barrett expressed regret for the loss of his fellow rebels, Tifa questioned the very existence of Cloud, Red XIII was still angry at his father, Aeris was confused about herself and Cetra. It was a quiet scene consisting solely of dialogue. The touching interactions epitomized why players spent hours and hours grinding their characters and coming back title after title.
Likewise, Terra’s situation in FF6 was equally compelling. Thrust into a world with an RPG storytelling staple (amnesia), she joined the Returners in their efforts to stop the Empire from reigniting the ancient War of the Magi. A child born from two worlds and two separate races, I watched as companions came and went, each with a unique back-story. Great scenes included the Opera Scene, the banquet where Emperor Gestahl invites the Returners to dinner, and Sabin learning his final technique from his old master, Duncan. Both games raised the stakes for what was possible in a game plot. What do I mean?
Stakes: Final Fantasy VI, VII
Pungent spices make your tongue burn. Likewise, the destruction of the world in FF6 and the death of Aeris in FF7 was a massive kick to your taste buds. Let’s start with FF6. The whole point of the game was to stop Kefka from destroying the world. Then, FF6 threw everything on its head by letting the villain succeed. Kefka pushed the statues that maintained balance out of alignment and the continents were wracked by massive explosions, causing global destruction. I still remember the moment I saw it. Evil had won. It was unbelievable. After waking as Celes, I even failed to save Cid. I’d never been so depressed and moved at the same time in a game.
In FF7, Aeris’ death was a shock to me. Her seeming innocence and kindness made her death all the more tragic. I’d even chosen her over Tifa in the ‘dating’ sequence in the Gold Saucer and had been favoring her throughout Disc 1. I know FF4 and 5 also had deaths (Tellah and Galuf, both older gentlemen with a whole lot of power), but none were as moving as Aeris. Normally, when a character died, you'd use a phoenix down, no problem, right? Not in this case. The finality of her murder was a startling reminder to players that games had grown up and gotten bloody in the process.
Here’s the odd thing. Since FF7, has there even been a death of a main playable character in Final Fantasy? I know Tidus faded away at the end of FF10, but you could bring him back in X-2. Balthier seems to die at the end of FF12, but no, he’s fine. I’m not suggesting the developers kill a main Final Fantasy character for no reason, but they should raise the stakes in the plots to help gamers feel their actions mean something, adding some realism by having real vulnerability, not invincible characters who overcome every adversity no matter how ridiculous.
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He has been working in film and games for over a decade. On his off time, he likes to travel the world. His short story collection, Watering Heaven, was just published by Signal 8 Press.
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